Category Archives: Women

IWD and Proverbs 31: eshet chayil in 2019

Why do we have International Women’s Day? Why do we need it? For me, it’s about celebrating women and it’s about naming the inequality women experience. I do this not because I am a feminist, which I am, but because I am a follower of Jesus. Jesus calls women and men to follow him, and the biblical narrative invites us together to work towards the restoration and reconciliation of all things.

I love that I get the privilege of teaching and preaching the breadth of the Scriptures, which are full of invitations to both women and men to step into what God is doing. But recently I was asked to speak at a women’s event on one particular chapter of the Bible that I have been reluctant to focus on. Not because I have any problem with the text itself: I’m passionate about all of God’s Word and allowing each part of it and the whole of it to speak into our lives today in all its richness and nuance. But the way this particular passage has usually been used and interpreted in my experience has often created guilt, set an impossible standard, or limited the imagination of women and girls for God’s calling on their lives. (I also note that there is another chapter with a similar acrostic poem with male pronouns and verbs and yet I have never heard anyone talk about how to be a “good Psalm 112 man/husband.”)

I tried to say no to the invitation, and I let them know my reflections on the passage might not be the warm and fuzzy encouragement people could be expecting. But they still wanted me to speak, and so with some nervousness I did, confessing to the group that I probably wouldn’t have turned up to hear someone else speak on this particular passage. But it turned out to be a good challenge for me and from the feedback a good challenge for those present.

So, on this International Women’s Day, I thought I’d share some of my reflections on how Proverbs 31 might speak to women in 2019.

We need to start with the context of Scripture as a whole, this grand storyline of a God who created us male and female and invites us all to participate in his work, rest, and play. He has uniquely called and gifted each of us to be members of a wider community who together play our parts in his mission. In Proverbs 31 we get a picture of one faithful woman playing her part in her context.

We also need to consider the book of Proverbs as a whole. Using an apparently standard poetic technique of the time, early in the book both folly and wisdom are personified as women. After a middle section containing individual sayings applying wisdom to a multitude of everyday challenges and scenarios, both personal and public, the book ends with another picture of what wisdom looks like in practice, in the day to day, in the mundane and the routines of life. So whatever else this poem is about, it is about the practical living out of faith and knowledge of God in a real time and place.

The poem in Proverbs 31:10 starts with a statement of praise, in Hebrew eshet chayil. This has usually been translated as something like ‘wife of noble character’ or ‘woman of virtue’ as if it is setting a standard to live up to. A better translation would be ‘woman of strength’ or ‘woman of valour’ in keeping with how the word chayil is translated throughout the Old Testament in hundreds of other places, with only the references to women in Proverbs and Ruth treated this way. In Ruth 2:1 and 3:11 the KJV translates the exact same word as ‘valiant’ for Boaz and ‘virtuous’ for Ruth. While I would argue that both men and women are called to be both valiant and virtuous, it’s difficult to see how such a gendered translation decision can be justified. The NIV fares only slightly better with Boaz a ‘man of standing’ and Ruth a ‘woman of noble character’. Why not be consistent? If the author has deliberately chosen to echo our introduction of Boaz and his introduction to Ruth with the exact same word, why hide this resonance? It is worth noting how other assumptions might be at play.

In contrast to a standard or list of boxes to tick, eshet chayil seems instead to be a cry of honour, almost a championing cry. As Rachel Held Evans has suggested, perhaps it is even akin to ‘you go girl!’ This isn’t so much about what someone does but about the way they do it – with strength and power, in a way that inspires and receives affirmation from others.

It’s also important to note that this poem is about one specific woman, rather than every woman. It gives honour for what she has done. The Hebrew verbs throughout the poem are nearly all in the qal or perfect/completed tense, which is more commonly and appropriately translated as past. (e.g. ‘she bought a field’; ‘she provided for her family’). This helps us read the passage as a testament to a life well lived, rather than a generalised checklist for others to live up to. To me it finds an echo in Jesus’ affirmation of ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’ It reminds of a funeral I attended of a 100 year-old woman from my church who had been a doctor, a missionary, a mother, a leader, and so much more. Hearing about her life didn’t make me feel guilt or pressure to do exactly what she had done, but it certainly inspired me to follow her example of faithfulness and courage in all circumstances. How might this poem do the same?

It’s also worth noting the remarkable breadth of the woman in this poem’s skills and opportunities. She doesn’t neatly fit into our preconceived boxes of what a woman in an ancient patriarchal society might be expected to be and do. She enlarges our imagination of ways a woman in that context can live faithfully.

How does she inspire and challenge us in our context, with the breadth and depth of the challenges and opportunities we face?

First, I think we need to know who we are as women so that we can respond appropriately. We are created in the image of God, invited as full participants and co-creators in his worldmaking and restoration project. We each have a unique place within this, and we all bring a different lived experience from our brothers, who need us as much as we need them to together contribute to the full flourishing of community.

We also need to acknowledge the challenges that women face, both personal and societal, that can make that harder. This is where we need to stop trying to be warm and fuzzy and name some realities that make me furious, and I believe make God furious too. God is seeking to bring about the reconciliation of all things, and a significant barrier to that right now is what is happening all over the world to women and girls. I have to agree with President Jimmy Carter, who has named the mistreatment of women as the number one human rights issue in the world today and one Christians need to start talking more about.

Women make up the majority of the world’s poor. Women are exceedingly and disproportionately more likely to be bought and sold as slaves and to be refused education. Systematic rape is still being used as a weapon of war. 30% of women worldwide have experienced sexual or physical violence from an intimate partner. In Australia, at least one woman a week is killed by her current or former partner. In some countries, women are still being ostracised from their communities during their periods, leading to assaults and deaths such as that reported from Nepal just last month.

In our own culture, the majority of women experience sexual harassment as a fact of life, with recent movements such as #metoo and #yesallwomen attempting to name and challenge this reality. Women lack representation and role models at all levels of leadership. Our cultural storytelling still tends to trivialise, objectify and sexualise women … when they are visible at all.

The painful physical realities of many women’s lives – from miscarriage to endometriosis to infertility and so much more – have too often been clouded in shame, borne in silence, or dismissed as overreactions. Too many women feel pressured or limited, dismissed or overlooked. Too many girls feel that they are less valuable or less called than their brothers.

What does it look like to be esyet chayil, women of strength and might, as we find ourselves in this reality?

For me, it has to start with the challenge to step up and speak out. To not be willing to be boxed in to one thing.  We need to be seeking to respond to these realities in our own lives and in the wider world. To not succumb to the pressure as women to be in competition with one another, but to stand alongside and behind one another in all our diversity and differences.

We need to honour the women amongst us; those who lead and those who serve, those who have overcome obstacles and those who are breaking through barriers, those who are struggling just to get through the day and those who are striving against systemic injustice, those who have brought a smile to someone’s face and those who have changed the world. The daughters, the wives, the sisters, the mothers, the nieces and aunties, the friends and colleagues, the teachers, the students, the pastors, the pray-ers, the poets, and the preachers. Eshet chayil, every one of them.

The woman in the poem of Proverbs 31 isn’t a model for what every faithful woman should do with her life. That’s just not how the Bible works. But she is an encouragement to every woman, and every man, to wise and faithful living in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. And she is a reminder to speak words of honour over the women of strength in our lives, today on International Women’s Day, and every day.

Gospel and culture: Wonder Woman, women, and the gospel

Last year, I had the privilege of participating in Tabor‘s inaugural Theologicon. We had talks on pop culture artefacts ranging from Superman to Lord of the Rings, The Fast and the Furious to U2, Game of Thrones to Wolverine, as well as some broader sessions on Pop Culture, the Bible and the Gospel.

We considered how pop culture both reflects and shapes our world.

My session was on 2017’s Wonder Woman, which I loved. (Enough that I went to see Justice League as a result, and I’ve already shared my disappointment and frustrations about that)

In particular, I considered why I think Wonder Woman resonated with a wider cultural moment around the participation and place of women, and how it connects with and can open up conversations about what it means to be human, the role of grace, and the big story of the gospel.

If you’re interested, the video from that session is now available, so I thought I’d share it here. I’d love to hear your responses.

 

* Note, I didn’t realise at the time that questions from the floor wouldn’t be picked up by the microphone, so unfortunately I did not repeat them for the benefit of those watching later.

My International Women’s Day Thanksgiving

Apparently, some Jewish men would wake up each morning and pray, “Thank you God for not making me a woman.” It makes me incredibly sad to think that like them, there are still too many men today who cannot imagine that being a woman can be just as exciting and energising and amazing as being a man, or react as if being likened to a woman is the worst kind of insult. And it breaks my heart that there are too many women around the world who have been made to feel less than their brothers: less valuable, less loved, less called, less empowered, less worthy. Because nothing could be further from the truth.

This International Women’s Day I am thanking God for making me a woman.

I am thanking God for the delight and privilege it is to embody my life and calling as a daughter of the King. For the exhilarating journey it has been to embrace my calling as a woman in ministry and a woman in leadership.

I am thanking God that on the day of creation He made both female and male in His image and called us to serve and steward this world He had made.

I am thanking God that on the day of His resurrection He invited both women and men to share in and tell of the new kind of life He had made possible.

I am thanking God that on the day of Pentecost He poured out His Spirit on both His daughters and His sons, young and old, empowering them to live out and proclaim the good news of the Kingdom.

I am thanking God that on the day when all things will be set right there will full unity and equality between women and men, from every tribe and every tongue, as together we experience the fulfilment and flourishing of all His good purposes.

I am thanking God that I get to live as a woman at a time when women are raising their voices and telling their stories and naming their outrage and stepping out into their calling and using their gifts and refusing to be silenced, pigeonholed, or overlooked.

I am thanking God that although I have never wanted to see myself as a ‘pioneer’ or ‘trailblazer’, that in my little corner of the world I have had the privilege of being the first woman to take on a number of roles and accomplishments. I am thanking God for opening doors that even I couldn’t see, for breaking down barriers before I realised they were there, for giving His grace to walk the road before I knew how difficult it could be, and for pouring out His joy and delight as I step into all He has for me.

I am thanking God for the many men who are my colleagues, peers, friends, and brothers, who have supported and encouraged, championed and advocated for me, and at times stood aside to give me ‘their’ place, who continue to respect and work alongside me as their equal, who listen to and learn from me, who honour and embrace my calling and my contributions.

I am thanking God for the many women who are my sisters, confidantes, mentors and mentees, who inspire and challenge me, who look up to and walk alongside me, who delight in and delight me, who enlarge my own imagination as they model all the different ways they are called to flourish as women of God, who show me more and more of how thankful we can be for God’s gift of making, equipping, calling, and delighting in us as women.

And I am thanking God that although there is still plenty of work to be done for us to lift up and embrace, include and hear His daughters all around the world, that His heart has always been and will always be towards and for them, and that He has made each of us women according to His will and for His good purpose in this world.

Thank you God for making me a woman.
Thank you God for making women.
Thank you God for women.